Race, Lies and New Orleans

A week after Katrina hit, a reporter for the British Guardian newspaper was curious whether there was any truth to the wild, gossipy and hysterical reports of murder, rape, incest, and stacked corpses at the New Orleans Superdome.

He closely examined police reports, records, statements of city officials, and eyewitness accounts. He didn't find anything to substantiate the press reports, or official claims of the bedlam.

His story was ignored in the mainstream press and lightly mentioned on a few obscure websites. A number of web respondents sneered at the story as a lie, or an apology for black crime by a left-leaning tabloid. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin quickly jumped into the fray, slandered his own city, and reinforced the worst racial stereotypes with his violence-is-everywhere rant on Oprah and national talk shows.

The Guardian may have been an isolated, and to some suspect, media voice with its counterspin on the mythical violence, but it wasn't the only press skeptic that tried to separate fact from fiction about alleged Katrina violence. Reporters for the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune, which could hardly be tagged left-leaning, also found no credible evidence that marauding gangs terrorized anyone, or that they even existed.

A month after these lonely press voices took the time to check facts, rather than run with gossip, a few newspapers did a tepid mea culpa and admitted that the apoplectic frothing tirades by a legion of talking-head commentators and their bloodthirsty headlines about "Baghdad on the Bayou," rape, murder, incest, stockpiled bloated corpses, mass looting, the breakdown of civilization and the dark side of America were exaggerated, or more bluntly a pack of lies.

The media's mea culpa, however, came a month after New Orleans and the black crime fixation had been firmly pile-driven into the skulls of millions nationally and worldwide, and becoming an urban legend created that the press's belated, gentile damage control could never shake.

This was not simply another overblown case of cheap sensationalist tabloid news. That's become so commonplace it barely draws a yawn from a jaded public.

New Orleans fit neatly into the standard equation that black, especially poor black, equals crime and violence. That equation kicks in even when there is no crime, or when whites commit the crimes.

In a 2003 Penn State University study, researchers asked white participants to examine newspaper pictures of black and white crime suspects. Later they asked them whom the stories had highlighted. In nearly every case, the respondents incorrectly said that the suspects were black. The researchers blamed what they called the "mismemory" of whites on who commits crime on the top-heavy media emphasis on black crime.

That mismemory was evident during another big disaster a decade ago. This time it was the 1992 L.A. riots. TV reporters constantly tailored their reports to depict the violence as the handiwork of black rioters. But TV was an open mirror. Viewers could plainly see that many of those looting and burning were non-blacks. A Rand study of the racial breakdown of 5,000 riot related cases processed through Los Angeles municipal courts found that the majority of those arrested for riot related offenses were Latinos and whites. The arrest figures were reported in the back pages of one newspaper and ignored by the rest of the press. More than a decade later, the L.A. riot is still indelibly stamped as being a black riot.

The scapegoating of blacks for America's crime problem hit full stride in the 1980s. The assault on jobs, income and social service programs, a crumbling educational system and industrial shrinkage dumped more blacks on the streets with no where to go. The big cuts in welfare, social services and skills training programs during the past decade dumped even more young black males and females on the streets.

When some turned to gangs, guns and drugs much of the press busily titillated the public with inexhaustible features on the "crime prone," "crack plagued," and the "blood-stained streets" of the ghetto. TV action news crews routinely stalked black neighborhoods filming busts for the nightly news.

The explosion of gangsta rap and the spate of Hollywood ghetto films convinced even more Americans that the gangsta lifestyle was the black lifestyle. They had ghastly visions of the boys in the hood heading for their neighborhoods next.

Much of the media instantly turned the crime problem into a black problem and played it up even bigger in news stories and features. New Orleans was a textbook example of that. Those in the media, and public officials such as Nagin, that ignored evidence to the contrary, and spread wild tales of rape, murder and mayhem, edged dangerously close to demonizing the thousands of blacks that were forced to flee for their lives and endure indescribable, inhumane conditions. It was irresponsible, shameful, and reprehensible, but it showed that when disaster and race collide, anything goes, including the truth.

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